I wasn't worried about any furniture having been moved; none was. Nor was any damaged or removed or replaced.
The shocking thing about my furniture was that I could see it.
You see, for the longest time my living room has been covered in stacks of papers from various meetings or newspaper clippings that I'd been meaning to file. The default filing method was simply to stack it up. After a while, I started using a motley of cheap plastic stacking trays (one stack shown here beneath Three Hole Punch), though many unsorted stacks remained.
Also for the longest time, it had been on my list to tidy/file/archive these documents, but the sheer volume made it too daunting to even know where to start. As is usually the case with these large projects, once you break off a piece of it into a small project, you get a better understanding of the rest of the problem and the attack plan is easier to see. It's like getting your foot in the door. But getting that first bit started is very hard.
A couple weeks ago, I'd gotten through a few stack-inches of newspapers, clipping out the articles I had kept them for and discarding the rest. The newspapers, while mixed in with the other documents, were a distinct project. I already had files for various categories of newspaper clippings, so this wasn't so bad. The plastic trays, however, were closest I had for a filing system for my other documents, and those trays are the very things I'm trying to get rid of.
I knew the solution would involve hanging files (I'd even bought a nice wooden file cabinet to facilitate this), because if I didn't file things in a way I could find them, I'd be no better off than throwing them all out. I also knew that once I started filing, whatever system I used to organize the documents couldn't be changed mid-stream; I wasn't going to be going through the files on a lazy afternoon weeks from now looking for files that could be sorted further. The whole point of putting things away is to put them away. But that was pretty high-level. I still had no starting point.
But last night.
Oh, last night...
Last night I'd sat down early in the evening intending to hack away at the pile by filing some more newspaper clippings. A couple of days ago, I'd cleaned up enough to get my place to the point that I wouldn't be embarrassed to have company over, and this evening I wanted to build on that. Instead, I diddled the rest of the night away with a heavy dose of Internet. It is the holidays after all; I wouldn't want to get too much stuff done.
Knackered at 3 a.m., I glanced at the stacks of papers on my desk next to my laptop and decided they could wait for some other day. I went to bed, tapped out the last remaining bit of energy by reading and doing some puzzles, and finally put my head down to sleep. As I laid there, without anything to distract me, my mind was free to wander. Unfortunately, the very act of putting my book away and turning off the light woke me up just enough to give my mind some fuel for wandering.
It wandered over to those stacks of paper and started to file them. I was following my mind as it did this, and I realized that what it was doing made a lot of sense. It had found the keystone--the one weak spot in the pile that, once felled, would cause the rest of it to follow.
Despite my attempts to ignore this clever little suggestion and go to sleep, it kept bugging me.
I wasn't going to remember this in the morning, was I?
So I got back up and started on it. I filed, and filed, and filed some more. When I got through the stacks that were already sorted, I went through the stacks that were not, and sorted those too. I even ran out of file folders.
I got about five inches of papers put away, and I'd sorted much of the rest into broad categories, resulting in the collection in the trays shown above. I still had five assorted inches of what I suspect are mostly related files, three inches of small newspapers, and two inches of "miscellaneous" (in the technical sense of "that which does not fit into any other category"), the last of which was left over from the previous round of sorting.
Five in the morning and I felt I'd accomplished enough for one night-morning.
Can I go to bed now?
No. No, you can't.
Having made sense of the piles of paper, the little things scattered around the living room now stood out. Now they were nagging at me. I'd done so much tidying, yet the living room didn't look tidy like I'd always imagined it would after this much work. I wanted the satisfaction of seeing the results of my efforts. If I left it like this, what I'd take away from it is that it's futile to try to clean because no matter how much you do it will still look like a mess.
Since I'd already brought my place to a certain stage of tidiness, it was only a few things here and there that needed putting away (or at least consolidation into yet another pile) keeping me from this goal. I put some things away. At this point, I was so tired I was starting to feel sick.
No. It still doesn't look right.
You can't sleep yet.
Well, by this point, it was getting downright weird. I wanted to go to sleep, but something inside of me wouldn't let me. It was past putting things away, now I was at the point that the stuff that is meant to be left out had to be arranged right. The pillows had to be arranged symmetrically on the sofa, the square coasters had to be aligned with the edge of the table, that sort of thing. I did this.
I sat on the sofa for a couple of minutes and finally concluded there wasn't anything else I could do without it becoming another project. I scribbled those projects onto my to-do list, and finally was able to sleep.
So when I got up today and walked into the living room, even though I was thinking about the previous night and composing this blog post in my head, it was a foreign sight to see surfaces of things that usually had piles of paper on them. I wasn't used to seeing the furniture. And thus, I was shocked.
It was as though my living room was cleaned by someone else during the night.
I'd had this late-night organizing impulse before, back in February, when I completely rearranged my cutlery drawer at 2am.
The thing is, it's not illogical. The reason it takes me so long to tidy things is that I want to do it right. I remember in the first episode of M*A*S*H that featured Charles Emerson Winchester III, he said during surgery, "I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on."
For me, tackling this kind of project is a real commitment. I know that when I start I'll want to keep going until it's finished, no matter how long it takes (heck, this blog post has taken me three hours to write and I haven't even had breakfast yet!). If I do something halfway, like putting my papers into piles to "tidy" my living room, the problem just comes back because the root of the problem--no proper resting place for the papers--hasn't been dealt with. And I also know that I might not have the time, energy, patience, or motivation to finish it if I stop partway through, at least not before it reverts to its original scale.
If instead a project is done right, done methodically, and done completely, the system used in so doing can be easily maintained and it will stay "done".
This is how I rationalize it, at least. In the end, I probably spend more time worrying about projects--and worrying that I might have to do them over if I don't do them right the first time--than it would probably take to just do them. I have a similar pattern at work.
But here's the thing: I'm right. I just now pulled open my cutlery drawer and took a picture.
It's still sorted, nine months later.
And that's my light at the end of the tunnel.
The only other worry is whether I'll still be able to occupy my time once everything is clean. Or, as expressed in another saying of which I'm fond (source unknown):
"A neat house has an uninteresting person in it."